The emirate is redefining itself as a cultural destination – we meet six men proving the city’s success isn’t built on sand.
Dubai is a place like no other. A glittering metropolis that rose from the desert as if out of nowhere, it has been called both a modern utopia and a monument to excess. Whatever your point of view, it’s hard not to be inspired by the sheer ambition of a place that has grown from a sleepy fishing village into one of the world’s great cities in a matter of decades. Nor can you deny its reputation as a model of peace in a fragile Middle East – which in part explains why so many people are moving to Dubai.
Like much of the area surrounding the Persian Gulf, Dubai was transformed by the discovery of oil. But while “black gold” may have built this city, it is not its lifeblood. Dubai is one of seven states comprising the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, but it holds just two per cent of the country’s total reserves, a mere trickle compared to its neighbour Abu Dhabi. Dubai’s ruling emirs realised this early, and resolved to diversify and future-proof the economy, beginning with an airport, which is now the busiest international hub in the world.
They attracted expat workers with the promise of tax-free salaries, and lured multinational companies with the creation of “free zones” such as Internet City, Media City and Dubai International Finance Centre (DIFC), independent jurisdictions governed by specific sets of trade-friendly laws. They announced Dubai as an international tourist destination with headline-grabbing projects like The Palm, an artificial, tree-shaped archipelago so big that it can be seen from space, and the Burj Khalifa, a skyscraper so vast that it didn’t just break the record for the tallest man-made structure in the world when it was topped out in 2009, it smashed it by more than 200 metres.
More recently, Dubai has been establishing itself as a cultural and technological destination. This August saw the opening of a world-class opera house, inaugurated with a performance by superstar tenor Mr Placido Domingo. In October, the city’s nascent streetwear scene was celebrated at Sole DXB, a two-day festival of sneakerhead culture that was attended by grime sensation Skepta, among others. And, only last month, the city agreed to conduct feasibility studies into building the world’s first Hyperloop, a vacuum-sealed transportation system devised by entrepreneur Mr Elon Musk. If it goes ahead, it could cut the journey time between Abu Dhabi and Dubai to 12 minutes.
But examples like these only tell half the tale. A city is nothing without its people, and so, to get a better impression of Dubai in late 2016, we flew over to meet the cast of characters shaping its future.
Mr Ali Mostafa, 35, lives in Dubai with his wife and their three children. He was born in London to an Emirati father and an English mother. As holders of UAE passports, he and his family are in the minority in Dubai, a city where expatriates outnumber natives by nearly 10 to one. A vocal champion of his home city and country, he has long bemoaned the way that it is portrayed internationally. In 2009, he released his first feature film, City Of Life, which aimed to show Dubai in a different light.
Why did you feel the need to defend Dubai?
Whenever I travelled, I’d read negative reports in the media – that it was this soulless place, that it was a twisted Disneyland, that it was this, it was that. This isn’t the Dubai that I grew up in. It isn’t the Dubai that I’ve watched develop over the past few years. People just see the superficial things – the mall, the hotels, the amusement parks – and they assume that’s all there is. But the heart within the city is its people. I wanted the world to see this. To realise that Dubai has more soul than people think.
Why do you think it gets such bad press?
Honestly, I think it’s envy, and an attempt to undermine the things that this city and this country have achieved over the past few years. I still can’t comprehend that I can drive over a bridge over a canal in my neighbourhood – a canal that wasn’t there last year. It’s mind-boggling. When I go to the marina, I’m still in shock to this day. I used to take a dirt bike there. It was just sand dunes.
And where do you see Dubai in a few years?
I think Dubai is the city of the future. When you think about what the future might hold, whatever that might be, this is going to be the place bringing those ideas into life. In terms of the UAE as a whole, I strongly believe that if we keep going the way we are going, this country is going to be the film industry centre of the Arab world. When <a href="https://www.mrporter.com/daily/why-star-trek-has-always-been-on-trend/1134">Star Trek</a> came to scout, someone asked them: why Dubai? And one of the producers said: “We came here looking for the future, and we found it in Dubai”.
How do you think it has managed to grow this quickly while remaining politically stable?
I put it entirely down to our leadership. They give back – and we love them for it. In any other Arab country, if you see the ruler, he’d be with a convoy of security and police, behind bulletproof glass. In Dubai, you can see Sheikh Mohammed walking in the mall. You can be at the traffic lights and he’ll be in the car right next to you, on his own, without security. When you’re loved, you have nothing to fear.
Mr Tom Otton, 34, was born in Cardiff, but spent the majority of his childhood in Oman, returning to the UK in his teens to sit his school exams. He studied sports and business at Stellenbosch University just outside Cape Town in South Africa, and moved to Dubai after graduation in 2006. A keen endurance athlete, he took part in the Marathon des Sables in 2015 and has recently returned from climbing Mera Peak, a 6,476-metre high mountain in the Himalayas. His day job is running Create Media Group, a digital services provider.
You’ve set up two businesses here in Dubai. Is it a good place to be an entrepreneur?
It’s a very entrepreneurial place. While most of my friends have corporate jobs, plenty of them have something going on on the side. I put this down to the fact that while it’s a very advanced economy, generally speaking – there’s a lot of money here – it’s full of untapped markets. There are plenty of products and services that have existed in the US or Europe for a long time that simply don’t exist over here.
Does its geographical location help?
Because we’re so centrally located, there are lots of regional offices here. If you’re talking to the right people, you’re not just talking to the Middle East – you’re talking to Northern Africa and Asia, too. To have a company here is to have access to a huge marketplace.
You sound like you play as hard as you work. Does Dubai have much of an active, outdoorsy scene?
Not really, to be honest. it can be a battle to get people to do any of this stuff. The expat lifestyle very much revolves around an unbroken cycle of <a href="https://www.mrporter.com/journal/the-read/parties-we-wish-wed-gate-crashed/146">parties</a>, brunches and work. That’s changing, though. A lot of people are leaving their corporate jobs and setting up adventure companies based in Dubai that specialise in travel around the region.
What do you recommend to visitors?
There’s Hatta, a little enclave of Dubai in the Hajar Mountains about a couple of hours away, where you can go hiking. And the desert’s right on your doorstep. Spending the night there is a central part of the traditional Bedouin lifestyle. You don’t need any fancy equipment – just pitch a tent, dig a hole and make a fire. The stars are incredible and the weather’s perfect at this time of year.
What is the government doing to help?
There’s a huge amount of investment right now into <a href="https://www.mrporter.com/mens/sport">sports</a> and fitness. Out in the desert, Sheikh Mohammed has just build a nearly-100km-long <a href="https://www.mrporter.com/mens/sport/cycling">cycle</a> track called Al Qudra Road. It’s a two-lane, tarmac road with street lighting, made just for cycling. And backing isn’t merely financial. The Crown Prince of Dubai is always out spear fishing and posting pictures of it on his Instagram.
Mr Tarik Zaharna, 33, has lived an international life. Born in Saudi Arabia to Palestinian parents, he attended school in Luxembourg and received his diploma in architecture at The Bartlett School in London. He first came to Dubai in 2007, just before the global financial downturn. He runs an architecture firm, T.ZED Architects, which operates between Dubai and Europe.
As an architect, what do you make of the criticism that’s often levelled at Dubai – that it has been developed too quickly?
I believe that the best way to learn is through making and through doing. This city is a real, physical manifestation of that belief. You can sit and mull things over and nothing will ever get done, or you can do and make and take initiative, then find out where you went wrong and how you can improve.
What are the challenges facing you as an architect in Dubai?
The main challenge we have here is one of communication. There’s not much of a local craft industry, so everything is imported. We have South Asian workers employing building methods imported from Germany, Switzerland or the UK – and they’re building on sand or reclaimed land. There’s also more of a premium on getting buildings up quickly when compared to clients in the US or Europe, who might have a greater appreciation for the process.
Do you have to accommodate for the differing tastes of Middle Eastern clients?
Not really, because the firm has a clearly advertised aesthetic. When clients hire us, they know what they’re getting.
Describe life in Dubai as an expat.
It’s changing. Until not too long ago, the way that Dubai operated was that people would come in, capitalise on the “expat package” to gain as much profit as possible and then leave. And that cycle would normally last about two to five years. Recently, though, more and more people are staying.
Was it always your plan to stay?
It was never a long-term plan. I always thought I’d go back to Luxembourg or the UK, or work in New York again. I’d constantly be fantasising about what I was missing over here.
So, what changed?
In many ways, I think that the economic downturn acted as a filter. There was a period of two or three years during which everything slowed down. Some people took it as an opportunity to regroup and reassess, while others thought: this isn’t for me. I feel like the people who endured the tough times came out of it with a new connection to the city. I know I certainly did. That was the point at which my mindset shifted – I suddenly thought: this is home for me. Good or bad, up or down, this is it. Whatever happens, I just have to push on and live through it.
Mr Scott Chambers, 33, has spent almost his entire life in Dubai. His parents, who are of Portuguese and Brazilian descent, emigrated to work in the nascent oil industry and have remained ever since. A passionate surfer from an early age, Mr Chambers left Dubai to study surf science and technology at Plymouth University in the south-west of England, returning after graduation to set up Surf House Dubai.
Why did you choose to set up a business here?
There’s a great deal of opportunity because so many things haven’t been done yet. The surfing industry, for instance, didn’t really exist before I started. Of course, being a market pioneer comes with its own challenges; the infrastructure doesn’t exist in the same way as it does in, say, Australia. But the state has been incredibly supportive.
And has surfing proved popular in the Gulf?
Dubai has amazing geography, the water’s warm and the temperature is perfect – and while the surf isn’t huge, that makes it ideal conditions for learning how to surf. I still don’t think that many people associate surfing with this area of the world, but thanks to the expat community, we’re certainly seeing it grow.
What has it been like to watch the city evolve?
This city continues to amaze me. It’s completely unrecognisable to what it was when I was growing up. I honestly don’t think we’ll see this rate of development anywhere again in our lifetimes. Only 20 years ago, if you’d have mentioned Dubai, most people wouldn’t have had a clue where it was.
What do you think has been achieved here – other than the creation of a lot of big buildings?
They [the government] have created an atmosphere of infinite possibility. Sheikh Mohammed says it himself: we’re still young, we’re still growing and we’re still learning.
Mr Elias El-Indari, 24, grew up in Sydney, Australia, to Lebanese parents who fled their home country during the civil war. He started his blog, Sydney Men’s Fashion, while studying for a degree in digital marketing at Macquarie University. He moved to Dubai shortly after graduation to pursue his blog, which he has since renamed SMF. With an Instagram following of more than 35,000 and close relationships with a number of luxury brands, notably IWC Schaffhausen, for whom he acts as an ambassador, Mr El-Indari has become one of the key figures in men’s style in the Middle East.
Why did you to come to Dubai?
I’d say it was 80 per cent business and 20 per cent wanderlust. Sydney is so far away, at least 15 hours to Europe, which is where a lot of the men’s fashion industry is based. Secondly, the blogging scene’s so competitive in Sydney already. Instead of competing in a crowded marketplace, I just thought, I’ll move over here and start afresh.
How’s it working out?
The market in Dubai is still relatively new, which makes it really easy for me to connect with brands. I recently launched a concept called the Gentleman’s Dinner, a monthly dining event with 25 VIP guests. At the last event, I was able to collaborate with [parfumier] <a href="https://www.mrporter.com/mens/designers/Frederic_Malle">Frédéric Malle</a> on the launch of its new fragrance, <a href="https://www.mrporter.com/mens/frederic_malle/monsieur-eau-de-parfum---rum--patchouli--amber--50ml/767920?ppv=2">Monsieur</a>. If I were to launch this concept in Sydney, I don’t think that brands would be half as receptive and enthusiastic.
Does your Arabic heritage help?
It works hugely in my favour. Big Western brands are really keen to connect with an Arabic audience, but they often don’t know how. They see me – a Lebanese man who can speak, read and write Arabic, but who grew up in a Western country – as the ideal ambassador. Let’s put it this way: if I was blond with blue eyes and fair skin, I don’t think I’d have been able to gain their trust.
Mr Anas Bukhash, 35, was born in Dubai in 1981, before the city’s rapid expansion took place. “I saw a very simple childhood,” he says. After attending college in Boston, Massachusetts, he founded Ahdaaf Sports, a company specialising in recreational football pitches. He later went on to found Bukhash Brothers, a celebrity marketing company that he runs with his two younger brothers.
Dubai’s changed hugely in the past 30 years. Does it still feel like the same place that you grew up in?
You have to remember that everything you can see now was just desert when I was a kid. Our way of life has changed beyond anything we could have imagined.
Visually, it’s a very modern city. Is this true culturally, too?
Emirati culture is still very rooted in tradition. You’ll still notice a lot of men wearing the traditional clothes. Family values are very strong. And our relationship with our leaders is super-strong. We adore our leaders. [First president of the UAE] Sheikh Zayed passed away years back, but people to this day are putting pictures of him as the background on their iPhone.
You’re not the first point this out. Why do you think it is that Dubai’s leadership is so beloved?
Because they take good care of us. You can watch Sheikh Mohammed on YouTube talking about the importance of investing in “the human”. They invest in our happiness. In fact, Dubai actually now has a Minister of Happiness, elected earlier this year.
What does “taking good care of you” mean in practical terms?
As an Emirati, I’m entitled to a plot of land. I get a loan to build a house. I get a marriage loan, if I need it. I get free insurance. It’s pretty simple, really. If you take care of people’s health and wellbeing, you’ll make them happy. And they’ll love you for it.
You’re in celebrity management. Is Dubai a good place to work?
Dubai’s a great place to work. If I was working in a boring city, it might be hard to convince people to come, but people want to be here. One of our first projects at Bukhash Brothers was getting Gigi Hadid, Selena Gomez and Kendall Jenner here for New Year. And by the way, they asked us.
What’s the busiest time of the calendar for you?
The end of the year is super-busy. It’s NYE, the Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi, people have time off, the weather is great… it’s crazy.